Editor’s note: Following the October 27 state order to limit inside restaurant dining to 25 percent of capacity, Bellota decided to offer to-go service immediately. Call the restaurant (number below) to place your order for pick up.
Mexican food is back, baby, at the Source on Brighton Boulevard, a year and a half after Comida’s departure and a whiplash-inducing seven weeks since Acorn closed in the space where Bellota, which means acorn in Spanish, now stands. “It’s probably the fastest restaurant opening in history,” says partner Bryan Dayton. All it took was the painful closing of a beloved seven-year-old concept, a splash of vibrant red paint on the ceiling and ductwork above the bar area (never fear: the dining room’s signature graffiti remains on the opposing brick wall and the wood oven is lit), and securing a talented chef to lead Bellota’s kitchen.
That chef is Manny Barella, a vet of Uchi Denver, Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder, and a number of acclaimed spots in the Napa Valley, including Michelin-starred Solage at the Auberge Resort. He emigrated from Monterrey, Mexico, in 2009, moving away from family and friends to make a new life in Atlanta. A graduate of Instituto Culinario Monterrey who happened to stage, or intern, at Oak at Fourteenth under chef (and Bellota partner) Bill Espiricueta about seven years ago, Barella is now in charge at Bellota, and has worked with Espiricueta to create a craveable menu of street food-inspired Mexican fare that is both casual and refined, traditional and new.
But first, the service model: Bellota aspires to deliver a relaxed dining experience that’s one step above what you’ll find at Smōk, Espiricueta’s barbecue spot at the adjacent Source Hotel & Market Hall, and one step below what was on display at its predecessor, Acorn; it’s going to be casual with a “touch of elegance,” says Dayton. Which means? Full table service, but quick. Brief, thoughtful touches will take place at your table by your server, all in line with COVID-19-era expectations concerning safety and sanitation. Menus, for example, are printed on paper—no QR codes at Bellota—but you can take them home with you, or let the staff recycle them; there will be no reuse, but you’ll still have the pleasure of perusing a physical menu. Servers will take orders and drop off drinks and food, of course, but you’ll box up your own leftovers. (Of course, masks are mandatory when not eating or drinking.)
The culinary approach is similar, featuring approachable regional Mexican fare—tacos, salsas, rellenos, quesadillas—but with each dish delivering a chef-y technique tweak or two. Guacamole comes with a dusting of cilantro powder, which Barella makes by dehydrating fresh cilantro stems and scraps, so nothing goes to waste. Esquites (an off-the-cob version of elote, or Mexican street corn) is cooked like risotto to release the sweet starches in the corn kernels, and finished with a burnt tortilla aioli and salty cotija cheese. Bellota’s gooey-cheese-filled chile relleno is fried in tempura batter for an extra light, crispy shell that Barella readily acknowledges is untraditional, it’s so delicious, he doesn’t care.
Every item the menu has a story behind it, and the through line is the creative collaboration between Espiricueta and Barella, inspired by the childhood flavors the chefs grew up eating. (Espiricueta’s father is Mexican, and his paternal grandmother, a native of Chihuahua in northwest Mexico, taught his Irish mother to cook the cuisine, from rice and beans to handmade tortillas.) “We’ve taste-tested every dish with our team,” Espiricueta says. “I somehow thought that my dishes would lead the menu, but it’s been humbling to cook with Manny; 90 percent of the time, his recipes have won out over mine. Manny’s food is unbelievable, and it’s all incredibly personal.”
Barella is happy to share where his food comes from, be it the trio of salsas on the chips and salsa appetizer plate—the tangy, smooth salsa verde is a recipe from his childhood best friend’s mother, Cristina, who would make the salsa spicier than her personal preference to hinder the boys from eating it all too quickly—or the simple-yet-flavorful rice that comes with Barella’s exceptional pollo en mole negro, which Barella adapted from his mother’s method. “She always toasts her rice, then infuses it with aromatics, including jalapeños, in chicken broth; we make it with vegetable broth at Bellota so everyone can enjoy it. My mother would never let me have the jalapeño, though, because she always said that she was saving it for my father.”
Some of the most exciting dishes are ones you won’t see at many of Denver’s Mexican restaurants: griddled panela cheese from the northern regions of Mexico; sikil pak, a Mayan pumpkin seed dip popular in the Yucatán; fried blue masa quesadillas; and lobster mushroom al pastor tacos, to name just a few. The panela is a magical dish, pairing a plank of deeply seared fresh cheese with a nutty, brick-red salsa macha, a specialty of central Mexico’s port city of Veracruz, all topped with a tangle of charred white onions, cilantro, and lime.
The fried quesadilla de requeson was a recipe that Barella learned in culinary school; at Bellota, he makes it his own by filling tender blue masa shells with house-made ricotta and epazote, serving Espiricueta’s jalapeño-cilantro vinaigrette on the side for a welcome burst of acid. The griddled shrimp taco, prepared gobernador style, is molten inside with chihuahua cheese, onions, tomato, and nuggets of sweet shrimp, and brushed with shrimp butter on the outside before crisping on the plancha. It’s somehow rich and delicate and you’ll think about for days after eating it.
Dayton has put together a beverage program that revolves around agave spirits—mezcal, tequila, sotol, and their brethren—with margaritas and palomas on tap; the margs are available by the carafe, too. There are a handful of Dayton’s refined cocktails on the menu, each as balanced and seductive as the next, and frozen drinks, too, such as blended margaritas and a spectacular, milkshake-esque rum-chata, made with homemade horchata. If you’re an agave fan, ask for Bellota’s spirits list, from which you can explore pours from large and small producers alike; there are 27 tequilas and 19 mezcals available, plus a small selection of other other agave-based spirits for true nerds, including the gently smokey, floral Yoowe Bacanora, made only in Sonora, Mexico, from agave Pacifica, which Dayton likens to a gateway spirit to mezcal.
Even with just 25 percent dine-in capacity currently allowed in Denver, Bellota is planning to open for in-person dining only on Friday, October 30. To-go and delivery service will follow in the coming weeks.
Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; The Source, 3350 Brighton Blvd., 720-542-3721